Books,  Media,  Stateside

Fake populism and the English language

I don’t know to what extent our readers in the UK and elsewhere notice it in their countries. But in an interview on National Public Radio, the political journalist George Packer makes a perceptive point about the use of certain phrases in American political discourse– quite different from the phenomena observed in the 1940s by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language”:

Packer: We don’t quite suffer from the same disease that political writing of Orwell’s time did. What we have now is a kind of a fake populist language, where instead of scientific terminology and multi-syllabic words, we’ve got “pit bulls with lipstick.” We’ve got “I’ve got your back, middle class,” as John Kerry said. We’ve got…

Interviewer: “Smoke ’em out”?

Packer: “Smoke ’em out.” “Dead or alive.” What we’ve got are leaders who try to convince the people that they are of the people by using what is supposedly the people’s language, although I don’t know anyone who ever talks about “Joe Sixpack” other than a politician. And the media does the same thing. This is the language that campaign insiders, the press that’s following the campaigns uses as well. They like to talk about “They tanked” in the middle of the campaign, or “cave,” “pushback,” “game-changer”. So these are words that sort of suggest that the person using them grew maybe up in a little town in Oklahoma…

Interviewer: Or Alaska.

…Or Alaska. And hunted, and branded cattle, and gutted farm animals in his or her youth, when in fact probably they didn’t. So it’s a different sort of falseness, and it creates a different sort of lie between the user and the listener.

Packer has written the introductions to two new volumes of Orwell’s essays. Most of the essays appear in the four-volume “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters” of Orwell, which I assume every Harry’s Place reader owns. If not, buy it for yourself as a holiday present.